By Tiffany Lee Brown
We were reshaping language. Making it fit better. Breaking it into chunks, discrete pieces. That’s what acid does: it lets you see all the infinitesimal pieces of everything, the air’s live molecules, the shivering motion of protons, electrons, neutrons as they fly through their individual atoms. At the same time, it lets you see the big things: the stars, the way the molecules connect all living creatures together, the breathing of trees against darkness.
We were reshaping language not just because it made us laugh, but because it brought new meaning to things, new clarity. And so the fire was no longer the fire. It was the Bright Flickering Orange Thing, as in: I’m freezing, but I can’t move right now. Would one of you feed the Bright Flickering Orange Thing? And someone would put a log—the Severed Guts of a Tall Being With Bark For Skin—into the big wood-burning stove with its open front, our only source of heat in this borrowed house.
All around us, Cold White Stuff muffled the forest and Cold Hard Stuff confounded the roads. It was twelve degrees Fahrenheit outside, in a region accustomed to mild winter days of low clouds and eternal drizzle. Every so often cold air—Arctic air—would come down from Alaska and get socketed in somehow. That’s what we were experiencing: an Arctic front.
Lee observed the Small Furry Clawed Mammals of the house and pointed out their qualities to me and Will. This grey one here, he decided, this grey one is named Steve. Check Steve out. He rules the world!
I looked at Steve, who was not actually grey but white with a very light smattering of black and orange calico markings, and marveled at his arching back, the confidence with which he slithered around the dangerous wooden runners of the Thing To Sit On That Rocks Back & Forth. The other Small Furry Clawed Mammals deferred to Steve, some more subtly than others. He ignored, or pretended to ignore, all of them. He set about licking his paw and draping it over his face, repeatedly, with the supreme social indifference that only a Small Furry Clawed Mammal can feign.
Somehow, I felt like Steve was faking it, that this whole ruling-the-world and not-caring-what-anyone-else-thinks act was an act. It just seemed like he was executing a power play, doing the Alpha male thing: posing. Still, Lee was right. Steve clearly ruled the world here in the home we were so diligently housesitting for Will’s friend’s parents.
There are two kinds of humans, Lee said with authority. Two kinds of humans and Small Furry Mammals.
Two kinds of everyone, I put in, even Tall Beings With Bark For Skin.
Okay, he agreed, two kinds of everyone.
Then he said, There are the Steves, and there is Fodder.
Fodder, Will and I repeated. We laughed and rolled the word around on our tongues. Fodder. We didn’t have to ask who the Fodder was. Nine-to-fivers, nincompoops, conformists, and hangers-on: they were Fodder. People like us, expanding our minds, asking the hard questions: we were the world’s invisible Steves.
Shouldn’t we try to save the Fodder? I asked.
From what, themselves? asked Lee.
I was twenty-one years old, and for several years, my life had begun to take on a somewhat adventurous quality. It began in a deliberate way: not Fodder the way Lee and Will and I were talking about it now, but fodder with no capital F. “Novel fodder,” I would say, laughing, hardy with rue, when telling someone about an adventure gone awry. Sometimes a droplet of Salty Eye Lubricant would fall. I could feel it cutting a track down my cheek, through the honey powder I had dusted onto my face with a feather.
Starting about a year before this trip with Will and Lee, I began to rack up Experiences at a faster and faster pace. Sometimes this racking hurt. Sometimes it brought me right to the edge of a violence-cloud, a Dark Glowering Mass of Condensation roiling overhead. I seemed to possess a magic umbrella and Mercurial boots. I would tiptoe away just as the largest raindrops fell. The thunder might clap simultaneously with the lightning’s dash for earth, but I never got hit, never got pinned to the ground by one billion joules of jagged energy. Not yet.
A tiny black cat slinked in closer to the heat and blinked up at Steve. Steve reached out with his big white paw, claws sheathed, and gently knocked the other cat across the bricks. The little black cat disappeared into the shadows.
Ho ho! Lee laughed. Did you see that? Steve doesn’t even have time to play with the Fodder. He just stuck his Furry Appendage right out there. Didn’t waste a minute.
Didn’t waste a minute! Will marveled.
This was not the kind of thing we should find funny. That I should find funny. Yet it was funny. Watching him bat the Fodder across the floor like that. Furry Appendage!
The Bright Flickering Orange Thing almost made it seem like our bodies weren’t freezing and chattering against the weather. The three of us huddled in front of it for eight or nine hours, making occasional excursions into the night, to Make Yellow Water or bring the Heavy Steel Bladed Object down through the Severed Guts of a Tall Being With Bark For Skin or to coax a shockingly cold glass of Elixir of Life from the kitchen sink. We discussed how the Universe functions, how we and others like us would change the world through the studious application of mind-altering substances and practices. Will had been telling me on the phone about his new friend Lee for many months now. I was glad to come home for the holidays. I was glad to rejoin forces with Will and glad to meet his friend. I liked that we might change the world, take it over from the Fodder. I liked it.
Steves rule the world! Lee roared.
Yeah! I yelled. Steves rule!
Mmm, said Will. He was more interested in feeding the Bright Flickering Orange Thing. We were still unbearably cold. There was no other source of heat in Will’s friend’s parents’ house.
A hazy paleness emerged in the woods. The Big Ball of Sky-Fire wasn’t quite ready to come up yet, but we could hear the Egg-Laying Feathered Ones starting to make snuggle noises. We traipsed out to the barn and fed them. I felt delicate and windblown, transparent, as though I was made out of a thin, infinitesimally thin sheet of ice, of Cold Hard Stuff, of Elixir of Life in its frozen form. We stayed outside until Will got his car started. It felt sad to say goodbye. He shouldn’t be driving on those roads, especially not coming down off acid and mescaline, but there was no point mentioning it. He had to go to work or he would lose his job. He had to drive all the way into town, willing his not-very-new tires to seek a connection to the earth, to fleetingly grasp the asphalt beneath the ice. People would be needing their coffee, and Will would serve it to them. Lee and I waved cold red hands at Will’s Ford Escort as it chugged down the driveway.
It was time to sleep the rocky sleep of hallucinogens.
Lee said, Will would want us to sleep in the big bed upstairs.
I said, Won’t we freeze up there? We sleep on the rug down here, by the Orange Thing. Steve eyed me from the rug as though daring me to attempt that maneuver.
Lee said, I’ll make sure you’re warm. Let’s go look now. I bet there’s a lot to look at, up there.
He was right. There was a lot to look at, up there. Out the big window, pale blue light dissolved itself up through the pale drifts of snow. Infinitesimal points of crystalline snow hummed past the glass. The great trees shimmered upward. I nearly lost my balance, watching the Universe breathe like that.
Oh! I said, gasping.
Don’t you think it’s beautiful? Lee asked.
Oh yes, I said, I do think it’s beautiful. Look at it out there. The Is is izzing.
Ohhhh, he agreed. The Is is izzing.
He put his arm around me in a certain way. I moved it.
I’m going to sleep, I said.
You are a Funny Little Human, he answered, and you are beautiful.
Standing there by the window, his body encircled me. This is what you’ve been waiting for all night, he said, and leaned his face into mine.
My mouth kissed him back for a second, maybe ten seconds; it was hard to tell with time heaving its wet breath in and out, fast for a moment, then drawing out each millisecond. I slipped away from time’s breath.
No, I said. I’m sorry.
I moved a few steps. I’m really tired. I’ll be down by the fire.
It’s nice to make love in front of a fire, Lee said, gesturing at the master bed, but wouldn’t you be more comfortable up here, in the White Comfy Marshmallow Square?
The bed did look awfully comfortable, as white and fluffy as the snow out there in the Is, but warmer.
Okay, I said, I’ll sleep up here, but I don’t want to do anything else. Just sleep.
Just sleep, Lee said in his Soothing-a-Child voice. We piled under the Soft Fluffy Thing and chattered our teeth until the warmth of our bodies made the White Comfy Marshmallow Square truly comfy. Then they pressed at me again, Lee’s face and Lee’s kiss.
No, I said. We’re sleeping.
But the Universe brought us here, together, said Lee. It’s time to make love.
I turned away. It’s time to make sleep. Goodnight.
His Funny Little Gripping Mechanisms pulled my shoulders back over. He pressed them into the comfy white mattress. It’s okay, he said in the Soothing voice. Everything’s going to be okay. He held me in place with my face looking straight up, up at the Body in Which Lee Lived, at his Skin Bag Filled With Mostly Salt and Water. The Skin Bag in Which I Lived felt stiff, like a board planed from a Tall Being With Bark For Skin.
Lee brought out his Surprisingly Large Swollen Appendage.
Oh Lee, I said. This is not what we were meant to do. We’re supposed to go back to the window. That’s what the Universe wants.
Oh Tiffany, he said, this is what you’ve wanted all day. All night. When you wrapped the three of us in that blanket by the fire so we pressed up close together. When you broke bread and fed it to us with your fingers. When you poured the water into our mouths.
Is that what it meant? I thought we were communing with the Universe. And, you know, keeping warm in a blanket.
No, Tiffany, the Universe was helping us. The Universe was helping us get to here, now.
But I don’t want to be here, I said. I don’t want to be now.
It’s okay to want me, Lee said. Will’s gone.
He stuck the Surprisingly Large Swollen Appendage into my Small Dark Place, pushing in great waves. I bolted up and said, Don’t you at least have a condom?
He pressed me back down. I don’t like condoms, Lee said.
I watched from the corner I had floated to, up by the ceiling. Down below, the girl’s arms lay pinned at her sides, hands spasming into claws, tendons trying to leap out of her skin. You could kick him, hard, and run, run out into the snow, half-naked, fifteen degrees outside, to wherever the nearest neighbor is, I told her. He might not catch you.
But I didn’t. Sometime in there, I must have decided to do Letting the Thing Happen to You.
Lee pressed and slammed. Molecules of our sweat beaded together. Microscopic cells of dead skin rubbed into each other. As pain illumed the Meat That Was My Being, the subatomic particles holding the Universe together with infinite space began to expand.
The rest of me drifted through the windowpane, out into the Is. The Is is izzing, I thought. Atoms are hurtling through space looking for other atoms to stick to. Molecules are rubbing against each other like cats in heat. The Fundamental Interconnectedness of Everything is reaching its zenith. I am a snowball. I am a chicken. I am a Tall Being With Bark For Skin.
Lee was still asleep when Will came back. I found him downstairs, pouring coffee into mugs hand-glazed by local hippies. He hugged me and began to giggle, pointing at the Small Furry Clawed Mammal in the corner.
It’s all different in the daylight, Will said. Check Steve out.
Steve was bending to his dish of food, his tail swishing side to side.
Look under him, said Will, look under his tail. I looked under Steve. I looked under his tail. I didn’t see much of anything, just fur. Fur and tiny pink nubs on his stomach.
I don’t see anything, I finally answered.
Will pushed a cup of coffee toward me and grinned.
Steve’s a girl, he said.
* * *
Twelve years later, Will and his girlfriend and I huddled around the remains of a campfire, waiting for dawn to creep through the firs. We had just heard the news: Lee was dead. Lee had died of cancer a few years back.
“Do you want to know what really happened that night, during the Arctic Front?” I asked, jumping over the coals, stepping on the iron grill in my Doc boots, jumping back on the ground, repeating.
Will did want to know.
The story I’ve just relayed to you streamed out of my mouth. Much of it I recalled quite vividly, had always recalled; but what happened on the White Comfy Marshmallow Square was new information. My brain had been holding onto it a dozen years, cradling the story, swaddling it until I was ready to hold it. Until I was safe. Until I was ready to reshape language in my own image. Make it fit better. Bid its words cling to the silhouetted contours of truth. Shape from it a bird, creamy white with dark spots on its wings, a small bird careening madly through the black trunks of a snow-laden forest, never stopping, not until she sees the sun.
Tiffany Lee Brown is a writer and interdisciplinary artist from Oregon. An editor of Plazm magazine and author of A Compendium of Miniatures (Tiger Food Press, 2007), she has written for Tin House, Oregon Humanities, Bookforum, The Oregonian, Utne, and Bust, among others. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Gargoyle, the Northwest Edge collections, Slow Trains, The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order (Penguin, 1999), The Clear Cut Future, Literary Cash: Writers Pay Tribute to the Late Johnny Cash (BenBella, 2007), and other anthologies. She was one of six Northwest poets selected for publication in The Human Growth Experiment (Water Line Press, 2005), and has blogged for Syfy.com and BoingBoing. She is currently writing a memoir about not-writing, and curating a project called “____ is the Opposite of Hate” for Plazm magazine. Tiffany can be found online at www.tiffanyleebrown.com.